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The Unemployment Line

Just about two weeks ago, baseball still had 97 unsigned free agents. Nats GM Jim Bowden guessed that some of the biggest names among them -- and there were plenty -- would find takers (or, more accurately, cave in and go to those takers for the right price) within the next 10 days or so.

Well, that 10-day period is over. And still more than 90 free agents don't have homes. Many won't find them. (As of now, there are 19 empty 40-man roster spots available in baseball. Granted, a given team can always clear up space, but this gives you an idea of the forces at work.)

Nats president Stan Kasten said the only other marketplace situation like this one in his recollection, with so many players available so late, occurred in 1995 after the strike, when the union took the unusual step of holding a camp in Homestead, Fla., for unemployed free agents to work out together.

"That's the only time I can remember anything like this," Kasten said. "Look, the economic problems in this country are significant, and it has exacerbated any problems within the industry. We will come through this. We will be OK. But right now, it's a struggle for everyone to find out what's their own comfort level with spending in relation to expected revenues."

All of this is applicable to Sheinin's story today, a piece that describes the economic noose tightening around baseball's remaining free agents. It's well worth a read. There, you can find some additional Kasten thoughts as well.

By Chico Harlan  |  February 5, 2009; 11:05 AM ET
 
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Comments

I'll be first out of the gate on this one...

This situation has been going on in the real world for decades - older workers getting laid off and companies bringing in two younger people for the same price - who are hungrier, willing to work the grind (re: 60 hrs/week) and just happy to have the opportunity. Take a pay cut or leave - IF you're given the choice.

No different here. Just now we see it with names we recognize.

The business of baseball has finally caught up with the real world, and the players are getting a big bite of that nasty sandwich.

The Free Agency period where players/agents set the tempo is officially over in my mind. It will never be the same again.

Posted by: dand187 | February 5, 2009 11:42 AM | Report abuse

>The business of baseball has finally caught up with the real world

Pittsburgh, KC and the other bottom-feeders figured it out years ago, they found out they could put any kind of team on the field, and they'd still get their revenue-sharing check for 30 million. The Nats seem to have come to the same conclusion. Baseball will always make money, and we'll never know how much because they don't have to make it public. Joke's on us. Times are tight for the billionaires kiddies!!

Posted by: Brue | February 5, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

youMoron,

Flores instead of Lo Duca - 5 games
Estrada and Mackowitz gone - 3 games
Austin Kearns will either platoon or backup - 3 games
Flipe Lopez gone for Hernandez/Belliard - 3 games
Health Shawn Hill (ok, pipe dream, but still) - 2 games

I think Perez for Olsen is a wash, but that's a 16 game improvement that I've just listed right there. You may think that I'm overly optimistic about some of these, but undoubtedly each of these ARE improvements that will change the team for the better.

Posted by: swang30 | February 5, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

This has nothing to do with the real world economics. Revenues for the MLB clubs will be reduced in 09 -- laregley due to banks and auto dealerships falling off the ad boards to a large extent, but there will still be very significant revenues to be had and attendance will be strong (e.g., less weekend trips to the beach b/c low money, more trips to the ball park -- baseball does well in recession). The economics locally at least are that the Nats live in a publicly funded state of the art stadium, they have one of the lowest payrolls in the game (even if they add some FA players) and they also happen to reside in what is among the strongest ad media markets in the country. The struggle is between players and owners waiting to see who will blink first. The players that did not sign earlier in the fall are kicking themselves, most of the ones that did not accept arbitration are double kicking -- they missed the market and now the rush to get the studs has been subdued by the rush to not rush into big spending on studs. Aging players are too risky; injury history players are too risky. Giving up a 1st round pick for Jaun Cruz or Orlando Cabrera, too risky. Now no one wants to be the player that grabs a deal before the deal grabbing begins and sends the prices for the remaining players higher. Guys will fly off the board, it is just going to take longer. My March 1 all the big boys will be signed and none of them will need a second job to feed the family or anything either. The money is there. Stan Kasten knows it more than anyone.

Posted by: dfh123 | February 5, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

@youMorons-

My optimism centers around the facts that although the Nats lost 102 games last year they were the youngest roster in the league and lost the most games played to injuries. I'm hopeful that the injury issue will not continue for another year, so that gives me hope of 5+ more wins.

The issue that everyone seems to forget is that the average age when MLB players start putting up big numbers is typically agreed upon as 27 years old. I think that the roster is better than last year simply because Zim, Dukes, Milledge, Flores, Gonzalez, Hernandez, Lannan, Shell, Clippard and Balester are all one year closer to being 27 and have another year of experience in the Show. Also, WMP just turned 27 a few weeks ago.

I'm not saying that I expect all of these players to be future HOF'ers or even regular All-Stars, but as they continue to get older and more experienced at least a few of them should provide more production which will hopefully continue to increase the win totals.

That said, I would love to have most of the players I mentioned above still honing their skills in AAA while Sizemore leads-off and plays CF, Brandon Phillips mans 2B and Cliff Lee is the ace of our staff...but since MLB made sure that cannot happen quite a few years ago I guess we all have to settle for watching the youth movement suffer while our future 'core' gets valuable OJT.

Posted by: NeedANatsFix | February 5, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I think that the situation is exacerbated by the erradication of steroids and amphetamines. What we have is a large number of older players who can't handle the grind and produce at their previous outputs. What is the solution to the grind (other than amphetamines)? Youth.

I was shocked today when I saw that Cliff Floyd had signed with the Padres to be their 4th outfielder. The twilights of careers are certainly coming sooner and lasting for a shorter amount of time.

Obviously, for other free agents, it's the economy.

Posted by: jctichen | February 5, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Also, 24 of the players on the 40-man roster will be 26 or younger for the entire 2009 season and an additional 4 players will play the entire season as 27 year olds.

Posted by: NeedANatsFix | February 5, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

If I were Orlando Hudson - coming off a wrist injury - I would be willing to wait until after the draft to sign. He - and other Type A Free Agents - might earn more by waiting until the signing team does not have to give up a pick.

If I were Adam Dunn, coming off 5 straight years of 40+ homeruns, I would be willing to sign a one year contract and bet that I can sustain the consistent production then re-enter free agency in an improved economy. I would also be willing to wait until mid-march before signing.

If I were Ben Sheets, I would hold out for a multi year contract of almost any value because I know my arm is going to fall off and any guaranteed income is better than none.

And if I were Chad Cordero, I'd sign an incentive laden one year contract with a team desparate for an experienced closer in hopes of re-establishing my value for the next year.

But, I'm me and I'll feel lucky to keep the job I have for another few years until someone recognizes my true genious and pays me the equivalent of a Major League minimum salary to do what I do do.

Posted by: natbisquit | February 5, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

"And still more than 90 free agents don't have homes. Many won't find them."

Take that Curt Flood!

Posted by: Kev29 | February 5, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

jctichen, good point re. amphetamines and steroids (I was interested that Sheinin's piece mentioned the former but not the latter as a factor).

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 5, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

natbisquit, an amen from the peanut gallery on your last para. I won't hold my breath until I reach the minimum MLB salary level (let alone Bud's - what the ?).

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 5, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

jctichen makes a very good point. Establuised star players who commanded big bucks have gone into their 40's with regularity due to today's elaborate training rituals and dietary resitrictions players employ (read that to mean PED's). That trend of the ancient yet still producing player has faded. This year's FA agent class is full of lots of guys over 35.

Posted by: dfh123 | February 5, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Establuised? Established was the idea.

Posted by: dfh123 | February 5, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Once these guys realize that Feb 14th has come and gone. With most of their friends limbering up in FLA or ARZ many will look realize that they haven't gotten a pay check since 1 Oct. The phones should be lighting-up as most teams look to sign the majority of these "bone-heads" to one year or one year w/team option contracts.

If I was Dunn and Hudson, I'd take the money and run as fast as they could to Viera. Earth to Adam and O'Dog the Mets, Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox ain't interested. The Nats are!

Posted by: TippyCanoe | February 5, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

As Sheinin alludes to in his article, there may well be a sea-change taking place with MLB - where talented, but flawed (doesn't field or run well, injury-prone, can't play back-to-back games, etc) ML FA's are left wanting for big contracts.
We, as fans, will probably still see a flurry of contracts signed during Spring Training - I can't imagine that players like Ramirez, Dunn, Abreu & their ilk will go unsigned; they (and their agents) just need to realise the market for their particular talents is lessened by the current economy.

Posted by: BinM | February 5, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

I know it look liked I cherry-picked from Shenin, but I hadn't read his column, honestly.

I have been one of the biggest proponents of signing Sheets, but I accept that it's not a good idea...

Sheets might need elbow surgery
http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090205&content_id=3801488&vkey=hotstove2008&fext=.jsp&partnerId=rss_mlb

Posted by: jctichen | February 5, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

or maybe not.

There is another way to deal with the grind: churning the roster. Platooning, putting guys on the DL sooner and longer, shuttling up and down to AA/AAA. But there are problems with that: rules that limit rosters and roster moves, and scarcity of talent.

A careful FO can manage options, waivers, and Rule 5 moves well enough most of the time. So if this becomes a regular thing (I don't think it will, fwiw), a bachelor pod of available free agents a team could sign short-term, without having to give up anything in trade, that would tend to benefit owners, ultimately.

Posted by: CEvansJr | February 5, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

So maybe the teams are willing to let the remaining FAs twist a while.

Posted by: CEvansJr | February 5, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

these are very few of the same players, but many of the same owners, who were willing to cancel an entire year, over a labor agreement. This time, they don't even have to bargain collectively, they just abstain.

Posted by: CEvansJr | February 5, 2009 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Put another way, there's only 19 roses left.

Throwing the competition under the bus begins in 3... 2... 1...

Posted by: CEvansJr | February 5, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

"these are very few of the same players, but many of the same owners, who were willing to cancel an entire year, over a labor agreement"

Different players, maybe, but the same MLB Players Association putting the Fehr of God in them. Same bunch of agents, too. The players themselves are really just pawns in this game that's being played between the owners and the agents. Stan Kasten is not the only one who realizes that, he's just one of the few who will come out and say it.

Posted by: nunof1 | February 5, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Lots of very good comments above this line or two. My two cents...the times they are a changin. Looks like the unsigned and management teams are taking a deep breath to reassess where they stand. I agree that although the signing frenzy hasn't yet happened doesn't mean it won't.

Posted by: cokedispatch | February 5, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

So I'm wondering, what are the fans' interests here? Lower prices, or at least fewer price increases, vs. better baseball?
Opinions? I'm still thinking about it.

Posted by: CEvansJr | February 5, 2009 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Believe me CE....if there is a nickel to be squeezed out of the fans back pocket, MLB will find a way to do it.

Posted by: cokedispatch | February 5, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

But are they? afraid, I mean.
I wonder. I don't think anyone knows.

***********
Different players, maybe, but the same MLB Players Association putting the Fehr of God in them.
Posted by: nunof1 | February 5, 2009 2:12 PM

Posted by: CEvansJr | February 5, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of the unemployed and the marginally employed, here is yet another neat article from Fangraphs discussing the quintessential replacement player CFs. A shout out to our man Ryan Leiderhos... Langefel... Lingehous... Our other Ryan! No, not the one with the Mets . . . Due to his ability to draw walks and work the count, he actually is not that far from what passes as an average all around CF, which leads the author to wonder why guys like him are so undervalued. I kid you not.
http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/2009-replacement-level-center-field

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 5, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

I don't disagree--they are a business, not a public utility--but there is a third party stakeholder here, who isn't on the field and can't sign or not sign anybody. We can only buy tickets, or not. So what's in the fans' best interests? Does it even matter to us?
*********
Believe me CE....if there is a nickel to be squeezed out of the fans back pocket, MLB will find a way to do it.
Posted by: cokedispatch | February 5, 2009 2:17 PM

Posted by: CEvansJr | February 5, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

@CEJ:

The big players in the FA market used to be the big media markets (both NY teams, BOS, CUB, both LA teams, & sometimes ATL). Given the current state of affairs, that has been reduced to the NYY (still throwing around Dad's $$$), the MYM (Minaya spending somebody else's money), BOS (Theo spending on the team's core) & ATL (trying to get back in the thick of things); The Cubs, Angels & Dodgers have all pulled back, due to the economy.

IMO, the Fans' interest is still to put a watchable, reasonably competitive product on the field, but at an affordable price. That's a copout in some ways, I know - but that's my opinion.

If the Nationals' FO was able to talk a FA into signing a contract, the fanbase would most likely embrace him (umm, no viable examples), until he proved to be less than what was paid for (see FLop, PLoD).

Posted by: BinM | February 5, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

new post

Posted by: leetee1955 | February 5, 2009 2:45 PM | Report abuse

@jca:

Langerhans is not a bad player to have as your 4th-5th OF; He can field all three OF slots competently, has learned some plate dicipline (more walks & higher P/pa ratio recently); he just doesn't hit for HR power.

Posted by: BinM | February 5, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Very good point CEvansJR, I always hate when people say "sign so and so, it's not my money". Well it IS your money, unless the team is operating at a loss. You are the ones buying tickets, you are the ones watching those crappy commercials so you are providing the revenue that support the teams salary. Sure it's a small number in comparison to the full budget, but we are a democracy, right? Same principle.

Posted by: estuartj | February 5, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Hey BinM - this is a little late but an OK place for a sidebar: Since 2002, I believe Boston has signed tow contracts over $50 million - Dice-K and Drew. This offseason, once they lost on Teixeira, they have pursued the "Lotto" FA strategy: by a bunch of cheap tickets and hope one or two hit - Smoltz, Penny, Saito, Baldelli, Littleton. They've cut their catching payroll in half since 10/07. Even their scrub veterans are a lot less than '07 - Hinske and Cora were about $7 million, while Kotsay/Wilkerson are a lot cheaper. So as much as the stereotype is that Boston is a big spender on FAs, it just is not the case since this management team has taken over.

Even the Dice-K acquistion involved $51+ million in money outside the salary cap - that's really a 30% discount or so since they were up against the cap when they signed him. Right now, he's makes 8-8-10-10 the next four years for a guy whose ERA is a full run less than league average the past two years and has an ERA+ of 126. As much as he gets grief about his BB, his WHIP was 1.324 both years and his K/9 was 5th and 6th in the league. Think he's be worth Oliver Perez money as an FA?

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 5, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps another factor is the rise of more nuanced measures of player value.

For example, the two big sluggers left, Dunn and Ramirez, have the gaudiest set of power numbers you could imagine. I doubt many in baseball think that either of them will significantly decline from their prior performance next year.

But they also share something else in common. They are both atrocious defenders. In fact, they are so bad, they give up almost all their positive hitting value. Or at least they give up enough to make their demands (based on their offensive contributions) far higher that teams (basing value on offense AND defense) are willing to go.

Mark Texeria had no trouble finding plenty of suitors willing to pay top dollar. He provides offense and defense.

Sheets is haunted by the ghosts of Jason Schmidt. No one wants to give a guaranteed contract to a guy who's arm may fall off at any time (although that didn't stop the Yankees giving A.J. Burnett 85 million.)

Posted by: traderkirk | February 5, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

A NOTE TO KEV29: Hopefully you were joking about Curt Flood he changed the face of baseball with free agency I'm sure you know who was the first major league player to benefit from free agency.Flood was an advocate for fair treatment for all major league players who back during Flood's playing days often had to work a regular job during the off season to supplement their income these spoiled brats of today wouldn't know Curt Flood from Curt Jurgens(Hollywood actor)as witnessed by Manny being Manny(holding out for more $$$$) Every major league player of today owes Flood a debt of gratitude because if it were not for Flood and Marvin Milner they wouldn't be as wealthy as they are today.

Posted by: dargregmag | February 5, 2009 4:45 PM | Report abuse

Flood lost his case. Harry Blackmun preserved the anti trust exemption and the reserve clause. Great man, great courage, Flood. Messersmith won when the case went to an arbiter.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 5, 2009 8:59 PM | Report abuse

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